Ho-Chunk Treaties and Treaty Rights

Peace Treaties

The Ho-Chunk signed a total of six treaties with the United States. The first three were efforts to create peace with the United States and neighboring tribes. In 1816, the first treaty between the United States and the Ho-Chunk was signed to end hostilities heightened by the War of 1812 in which the two nations were on opposing sides. After the war, the Ho-Chunk and other Midwestern tribes began to fight among themselves, with war parties avenging past wrongs and fighting to secure new hunting territories. To stem the rising tide of intertribal warfare, the United States sponsored a treaty council at Prairie du Chien in 1825 to establish firm boundaries between the tribes.

The Ho-Chunk were one of the signatories of the 1825 Prairie du Chien Treaty along with the Ojibwe, the Indians of the Illinois River, the Santee Dakota (also called the Sioux), and the Sauk and Fox. These tribes thus agreed to boundaries created between them. The treaty did not, however, resolve a dispute the Ho-Chunk and Menominee had with three emigrated New York tribes: the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown. This debate had concerned treaties signed several years earlier by the three tribes.

In 1821 and 1822, the New York tribes entered into two treaties with the Ho-Chunk and Menominee to purchase part of their land. Later, the Ho-Chunk and Menominee contended the New York Indians had deceived them by not informing them that the provisions of the 1821 Treaty gave the New York Indians about 860,000 acres of land, and that the 1822 Treaty gave them an additional 6.72 million acres including almost the entire western shore of Lake Michigan. The Ho-Chunk and Menominee argued that they never intended to sell any land to the New York Indians and instead only planned to allow the emigrants to live there. The Ho-Chunk and Menominee protested so bitterly that the Senate refused to ratify either treaty.

As a result of the unresolved dispute in 1825, another treaty council was held in 1827 at Little Lake Butte des Morts in Wisconsin. The treaty reaffirmed the boundaries between the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, and Ojibwe, but again did not end the problems between the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, and the New York Indians. However, it did call for a commission to look into the matter and make recommendations to the President, who would make the final decision. Although the New York Indians were not present at the Butte des Morts council, the Ho-Chunk and Menominee agreed to the proposal. The two nations and the Ojibwe, who were also present, received $15,682 in goods and $3,000 to establish schools among the three tribes. A series of three treaties negotiated between 1831 and 1832 presented the New York tribes with land. The Ho-Chunk did not sign the final treaties because only the Menominee ceded land. 

Land Cession Treaties

Many Ho-Chunk continued to distrust the American efforts to maintain peace even after signing the 1816 peace treaty. Their suspicions became reality when the U.S. neglected to act after thousands of White miners illegally entered Ho-Chunk tribal lands in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1820s to mine rich veins of lead ore. This further aggravated many Ho-Chunk, including Red Bird, who led a short-lived uprising against the United States for its inaction. The Army quickly suppressed the uprising. To avoid future disturbances, federal officials attempted to purchase the Ho-Chunk's valuable mineral lands. The Ho-Chunk reluctantly agreed to sell their land in an 1829 treaty. In exchange, leaders of the uprising received pardons and were spared the death penalty. In addition, the tribe would receive a 30-year annuity of $18,000, 3,000 pounds of tobacco, and 50 barrels of salt. They received a one-time gift of $30,000 in gifts such as guns, metal cooking utensils, and cloth. The United States also promised to establish three blacksmith shops for the tribe and maintain them for 30 years, and lastly paid off $33,000 of the tribe's debts incurred with local traders.

The Black Hawk War of 1832 opened the door for the United States to compel tribes to cede more of their homelands, which included pressuring the Ho-Chunk into selling more land in southern Wisconsin. The terms of the 1832 Treaty left the Ho-Chunk in possession of their lands north of the Wisconsin River, but the U.S. hoped the tribe would move west to what was known as the Neutral Ground in Iowa. The U.S. purchased this tract from the warring Sauk and Fox and the Santee Dakota in 1830 to create a buffer zone between the two nations, and federal officials believed that peace would be maintained by moving the Ho-Chunk into this region. The treaty even promised to give those Ho-Chunk who went to the Neutral Ground free food for 30 days. In addition to gaining ownership of the Neutral Ground, the Ho-Chunk received $10,000 every year for 27 years by signing the 1832 Treaty. The United States also promised to establish a school and a farm in the vicinity of Prairie du Chien to teach the Ho-Chunk agricultural skills and to maintain these for 27 years. While some Ho-Chunk moved to the Neutral Ground after the treaty, many simply moved to Ho-Chunk lands north of the Wisconsin River.

The refusal of part of the tribe to remove to Iowa meant that the United States had to negotiate yet another treaty. In 1837, a treaty was negotiated in Washington, D.C., whereby the Ho-Chunk sold the last of their Wisconsin lands to the United States. The treaty provided the tribe $1.5 million, but included many stipulations. The government placed $1.1 million in trust, with the tribe receiving the interest as an annuity of about $55,000 a year. However, this money had to first pay for support of schools, agricultural teachers, a grist mill, and medical services. What remained belonged to the tribe, but only $20,000 could be paid in cash, with the remainder paid in goods and food only, for a period of 22 years. The remaining $400,000 allotted by the treaty was set aside to settle outstanding debts the tribe had incurred with traders and other individuals. The amount repaid most likely exceeded actual debts due to fraudulent claims by traders and merchants. In 1838, the War Department appointed Simon Cameron, a federal commissioner, to examine these claims. Cameron may have abused his position for personal gain: an Indian agent claimed that Cameron pocketed between $60,000 and $100,000 in kickbacks while investigating the claims. In addition to cash payments, the tribe was given the right to hunt on a small portion of the Neutral Ground, but they were not given title to it. Later, the government purchased this land from the Ho-Chunk and gave them land in Minnesota, then South Dakota, and finally Nebraska.

Meanwhile, the United States began moving the Ho-Chunk out of Wisconsin. However, many refused to go, claiming they had been lied to during the 1837 Treaty negotiation. They understood they had eight years before leaving when, in reality, they were given eight months. The government attempted to remove them several times, but many Ho-Chunk simply kept returning to Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk who stayed in Wisconsin were essentially Indians without a tribe, and for this reason they were forced in the 1870s and 1880s to take 40-acre homesteads like White settlers so they could remain. Unlike the Ojibwe, none of the Ho-Chunk treaties reserved rights for them to hunt, fish, or gather on their ceded lands.

The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk gained federal recognition in 1963, and the reservation territories the tribe owns are federal trust lands like most other Indian lands, but their reservations were not created by treaty like those of the Menominee.